Time to take control! Pilates for tone and strength.

If you feel that life is whirling around you and you're feeling a bit stressed, it's time to take control starting with a few muscles and a couple of hours a week set aside just for you.

We're talking about Pilates - a great way to improve your body's tone, strength and shape, whatever your fitness level, age or gender. The method is based on a sequence of closely controlled exercises and movements, helping you to build longer, leaner muscles, which in turn help maintain a healthy metabolism. Developed over the last century, Pilates has taken on board influences from yoga, gymnastics, ballet and even boxing. But if that makes it sound complex and way too difficult or energetic, don't worry - it's just the opposite.

A typical session involves working the whole body, though Pilates can also be a great way to tackle a particular 'problem' area or help to recover from an injury.

If your fitness level is not quite what it used to be, Pilates is perfect for building it back up without embarking on an exhausting, aggressive or competitive exercise regime. It's all about you as an individual - recognising that we're all different and work towards our goals in different ways and at different speeds.

The easiest kind of Pilates to find and join in with is a class based on mat work, but exercises can also be done on machines in a studio. Both are fantastic for you, but mat work, with very little equipment needed, enables you to easily practise at home or away, or even on the beach!

So when you get to a class, what can you expect?

Pilates exercises are designed to balance the body by improving inner strength and flexibility. They may involve lying on a mat and lifting parts of your body, stretching and bending, balancing on large balls or using stretchy resistance bands. You may like to turn up in lycra gymwear, but light clothes that you can move around in easily are just as good.

Through small, precise adjustments, Pilates exercises focus on the particular body part we're trying to move at any one time. It's all about locating our elusive inner 'core' muscles and making them really work for us, instead of relying on our large outer muscles - the ones that usually take the strain and cause us pain when we're off balance or unstable. When our core muscles are working more efficiently, our skeleton, and in particular the spine, are better supported and are less likely to cause problems. The strength and control that Pilates gives you can help you get even more out of any other sports or activity you may already be doing, or are planning to do. Even a brisk walk just a few times a week can be all it takes to improve circulation and keep your energy levels up - after all, staying happy and healthy is all about finding fun ways to be good to your body while fitting into your everyday life.

 

Your mind matters, too. Pilates for concentration and relaxation.

For total health, it's just as important – and sometimes as difficult – to let go of what's weighing on our mind as well as the tension coiled up in our body. Most of us will recognise that late night feeling; in bed, exhausted, with the lights switched off but unable to switch off that little voice in our heads reminding us of tomorrow's problems and the ever-present ‘to do' list.

Stress can make us irritable, pessimistic and even depressed, but a restless mind can also profoundly affect us physically, disrupting sleep and leaving us tired and unable to cope during the day.

How can Pilates help with this?

There are several ways in which any physical activity can help our state of mind. On a chemical level, when we exercise, substances called ‘endorphins' can be released into the bloodstream, producing a feeling of happiness and wellbeing.

More specifically, Pilates exercises involve a level of precision which takes quite a bit of concentration. As you focus your mind on performing the exercises, thoughts of anything else simply have to be put to one side for a while. When you step into a class, you leave the outside world at the door and spend an hour feeling calm and relaxed, and end up leaving deliciously de-stressed.

It's a virtuous circle; as we focus on our bodies' movements our minds can relax, and as we relax the body our minds can focus.

Pilates also teaches your body how to move within its most natural alignment, which in turn allows it to work more efficiently. For example, the muscles that support your upper back will get stronger which means you will rely less on the muscles of the shoulders and neck to keep your head upright. With the average head weighing as much as a 5 litre bottle of water, no wonder physical and mental tensions build up! Freeing ourselves of these tensions can help us live in the moment, maintain focus and concentration and sail through the day.

A less obvious psychological benefit is body awareness. Basically, this means we become more conscious of how we move in the space around us and gain better coordination. On a deeper level, it's getting to know your body and what it's capable of, so that you can set yourself realistic individual goals that you can then go on to achieve - and what is more motivating that actually doing something you set out to do? Pilates can help you build your confidence, keep calm, and carry on being kind to your body and mind!

 

Shape up, stand up. Pilates for posture and body shape.

There are many reasons to take up Pilates, and like any form of exercise, it can have quite an effect on the way we look. By lengthening the muscles, Pilates helps to tone and sculpt the body, but also has a great effect on posture by improving control and alignment.

The best thing is that the techniques you learn in class stay with you during your day to day activities. Most of the time this happens quite subconsciously and, although subtle, it can dramatically change the way you present yourself to the people you meet.

Good posture always makes us appear confident and self assured, but the physical benefits aren't to be overlooked; when our bones are positioned just as they were intended, they are also at their most shock absorbing, so we move with greater freedom and our joints work as smoothly as a well-oiled hinge.

The healthier joints Pilates gives you make other activities feel easier, too. So for a really heart healthy lifestyle, why not supplement your sessions with a cardiovascular workout or any other exercise that raises your heart rate? It doesn't have to be marathon running, it could just be a brisk walk, cycling or swimming – there's a lot to choose from so you should be able to find something that works for you. The main thing is to enjoy it enough to do it regularly.

Even though Pilates alone is not intended for weight management, it's a great aid. As it strengthens your muscles, your metabolism will be able to burn off more excess energy. And as muscle replaces fat, you could start to notice inches falling off your measurements.

It really doesn't matter how fit you are to start with – Pilates has benefits whatever your level or age, and it has to be one the most enjoyable ways around to whittle away your waist, tone your tummy and develop that pert posterior you so desire!

After just a handful of Pilates sessions you'll find yourself standing straighter and giving off an aura of confidence that in itself can't help but boost the way you look and feel.

Let's get going. Pilates for beginners.

How do you get started?

Have a look around locally and you'll probably find lots of classes to choose from, run by different organisations with slightly different approaches. It might be a good idea to try a few to help you find the one that works perfectly for you.

Most beginners start by attending group classes – it's a good, inexpensive way to learn in a friendly environment. But you can also arrange private one-to-one sessions if you prefer, or if you have a particular problem you'd like to spend extra time on. To get the most out of Pilates, what's really important is to start with the basics and understand the fundamentals.

 

If you are recovering from an injury or have an ongoing problem with your back or neck, for instance, then it's good to start your Pilates with a teacher who can help you start gently and add more strenuous exercises to your routine as you get stronger.

Once you have started to experience the exercises and know what they should feel like within your own body, then you can practise the more familiar ones at home.

This is a great way to make faster progress and feel the difference. And if you can commit a bit of time and use books and DVDs to follow set workouts (typically 30-50 minutes), then even better. If you're time poor then doing just a few exercises for 5-10 minutes while you run a bath or wait for the kettle to boil will still be well worth while.

Doing Pilates regularly, whether in a class or at home, will deliver benefits far more quickly than exercising off and on. And remember, sometimes less is more – do what you can, but keep it up. Make exercise part of your everyday, and enjoy the results!